Column, 647 words

We’re Watching a Great Depression Re-Run

Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today's major political dilemmas.

Donald Kaul

The philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Which is what we’re doing.

I thought I’d found an isolated instance of that phenomenon the other day when I ran across quotes on the necessity for balancing the federal budget uttered by right-wing politicians during the Great Depression. They worshipped at the altar of the balanced budget back then — just as they do now — using almost identical language.

Further reading has convinced me that the instance wasn’t isolated. Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today’s major political dilemmas.

Kaul-GreatDepression-ABC Archives

ABC Archives/Flickr

Conservative leaders, then as now, were absolutely clueless as to what regular people were going through. There’s a reason they call what we’ve just experienced the “Great Recession” and the 1930s economy the “Great Depression.” The Depression was much more devastating, with 13-15 million people unemployed, leaving as many as 34 million men, women, and children with no income at all.

Their safety net was often a garbage heap in which they foraged for food, or worse, begged for it. Yet President Herbert Hoover actually said: “Nobody is actually starving. The hobos, for example, are better fed than they have ever been.”

And when it was suggested that the Du Pont family’s corporation sponsor a Sunday afternoon program during the Depression, a member of the clan rejected the idea on grounds that “at three o’clock on Sunday afternoons, everybody is playing polo.”

Does that sound like Mitt Romney talking to his country club friends or what?

There’s more of that, much more, in a wonderful book, The Glory and the Dream, written almost 40 years ago by the journalist-historian William Manchester. It’s “a narrative history” of the United States between 1932 and 1972. The section on the Depression is especially riveting in that you repeatedly run across things that could be last week’s news. Consider these examples:

  • President Franklin D. Roosevelt was subjected to a conspiracy of vicious lies, rumors, and innuendo. It was said that he had a venereal disease that he’d gotten from his wife, Eleanor. Who’d apparently gotten it from a “Negro.” He was called a Communist and a Jew, descended from “Dutch sheenies.” 

    Welcome birthers.

  • Roosevelt was opposed by his own version of Rupert Murdoch, the Fox news emperor: William Randolph Hearst. That media mogul ran a chain of right wing newspapers, a newspaper syndicate, and the leading newsreel company that spewed venomous criticism of FDR. He was joined by Father Coughlin, the fascist Catholic priest whose radio show commanded an audience as large as 45 million. 

    Rush Limbaugh anyone?

  • Much like today, the Depression-era right wing viewed Social Security as just another name for socialism. Factory owners put up signs for their workers in favor of Alf Landon, FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential election saying: “You’re sentenced to a weekly tax reduction for all your working life. You’ll have to serve the sentence unless you help reverse it November 3.” The GOP national chairman took to the airwaves to announce that every man and woman who worked for wages would be issued a number and required to wear a steel dog tag around his or her neck. 

    Doesn’t that remind you of Paul Ryan’s budget priorities?

  • Those 1930s right-wingers believed their own propaganda, just as today’s do. On the eve of the 1936 election, The Literary Digest and most conservative commentators predicted an easy victory for Landon. Roosevelt crushed him, winning by 11 million votes.

Similarly, Romney and many conservatives thought he was going to win big in November. He lost by five million votes.

So you see folks, we’ve been in this neighborhood before. The scenery isn’t any better now than it was in the 1930s. As another great philosopher, Yogi Berra, might have said:

“It’s déjà vu all over again.”

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • talferris

    The only thing I could humbly add is, ‘nightmare.’ Its a deja vu nightmare.

  • Jimbo

    Where was that altar when Barack Obama’s predecessor was in office? It must have the strong smell of mothballs.

  • JaylahP

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

    Of course, even now, right-wingers will tell you that we would have gotten over the Great Depression much sooner had they’d been allowed to have their way.

  • Dan Hays

    Your observations are spot-on. The only point of disagreement is that I contend we’re in a Great Depression ourselves. The statistics don’t seem to compare, but you have to consider the growing number of people who have fallen off the grid and can’t be tracked. They’re the long-term unemployed who are no longer actively seeking employment through those job banks that track and report the activity. Lots of contractors have been laid off and are ineligible for unemployment benefits. Too many of them are unable to find work and many have given up. Then there are those who have been able to find some sort of minimum wage job, but it’s part time and without benefits. Yet it at least puts some food on the table and helps keep the lights turned on. I’m convinced that future historians looking back on this time will record that we’re now experiencing a Depression every bit as devastating as the one in the 1930’s. What we’re going to have to do in this one is to put together some new form of safety net, or reform and enhance the ones we now have. There is a growing segment of the population, as of now un-accounted for, that is becoming too old, too sick, too debilitated in mind, body and spirit, to support themselves as they once did. My hope is that we are still the nation that responds with a healthy mixture of compassion and common sense, and that we somehow emerge from this dark time as people who are stronger and better because we have cared for the least of these, our sisters and brothers, our fellow citizens.

  • wayne from Sheboygan

    I still remember W’s Press Secretary (Dana Perino) displaying complete ignorance about a reporter’s question referring to the Cuban missle crisis. Or for that matter, W himself creating Vietnam 2.0 after having lived through the Vietnam years.

    • JaylahP

      Of course “W” may have lived through Vietnam, but never actually knew anything about it, other than that his daddy bought his way out of it so he could stay drunk.

  • TomTomA

    There are even more eerie parallels. FDR thought that massive government intervention in the economy would help “fix” the depression. Instead his policies extended it for 15 long, miserable years. Obama shares the same ignorance of economics. FDR used federal money to buy votes and influence people, punishing his enemies and rewarding his supporters. Ditto for Obama. People who opposed FDR were smeared mercilessly by a complicit press. Ditto for Obama. Kaul speaks of “fascism”; perhaps he should read some history of the FDR era and see ust how enamoured FDR was with “Il Duce”, and see the degree to which the admiration was mutual.

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